Power struggles

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:00 20/03/2011
sutton
Photo: Lawrence Smith
Recovery: Orion CEO Roger Sutton plots the reboot of Christchurch.

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Roger Sutton gets paid $700,000 a year to keep the lights on in Canterbury. So why did the post-quake failures of his electricity network turn him into something of a hero? By Adam Dudding.

WHEN ROGER SUTTON goes along to public meetings he likes to take a prop – a great long sheet of butcher's paper, about five metres long, covered with a flowchart of hand-drawn pictograms.

He'll point to the cartoon pylon on the left – that's the electricity arriving from a power station, next to them are the little substations that are working just fine, and over on the right are these whacking great 66,000-volt underground power cables, which blew up when the ground shook on February 22.

The message from the Orion chief executive is: We know you're hurting, we want you to understand the problem, and we're fixing it up as fast as we can.

Somehow – perhaps because of his gift for turning the code of megawatts and kilovolts into language we can all understand, perhaps because of his blunt and uncondescending manner, perhaps, even, because of the endearing trace of a lisp that turns Barbadoes St into Barbadoeth – those eastern-suburb Cantabrians still waiting to heat their water or switch on their lights are willing to wait just a tiny bit longer.

The 46-year-old's name has even been bandied about in speculative news articles as a possible "Quake Czar" to oversee Christchurch's reconstruction, and he's been praised on Facebook posts ("thank you Roger and your team for the HUGE effort you have put in" etc).

Last week, Sutton appeared mildly appalled at the idea of being interviewed by the Sunday Star-Times about himself rather than technical matters, but he still nipped out of an Orion meeting about rebuilding power substations before winter, and cycled over to the emergency HQ at the art gallery for a brief interview on Wednesday afternoon. He was wearing Ground Effect-brand cycle shorts and an orange hi-vis jacket. His nice brown suede shoes were in a bag for changing into later. Also in the bag was a scaled-down version of that 5m-long flowchart – "my famous graph" as Sutton calls it.

The Quake Czar idea is a non-starter, says Sutton. He has no idea if the government plans to create any such role but, even if they did, he has plenty to do just getting the power back on. And his sudden elevation to be one of the media faces of the quake just arose from nowhere, and started after the September quake.

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"I came down and told the city councillors pretty straight what was happening to the electricity network, and after that they always seemed to come back and invite me to the media briefings. That's all. If they don't want me to talk, I'm happy not to talk."

But he understands the level of interest in what he has to say. By last week most parts of Christchurch outside the ruined CBD had power, but a good chunk of that was from temporary generators, and the network requires months of work before it can handle pre-quake peak loads. "Electricity," Sutton points out, "is a pretty fundamental thing that people need."

You or I might like what electricity can do to the water in a kettle or the pixels on a TV screen, but Sutton loves electricity in a way that only an engineer could. He talks not only of looking after "my customers" and "my shareholders", but also protecting "my cables".

His sister-in-law is actor Robyn Malcolm, of Outrageous Fortune and Hobbit-labour-stoush fame. According to her, Sutton will kidnap family members and drive them to see one of his transformer stations. Sometimes, says Malcolm, he'll take her to see a bridge that's been reinforced by Orion to carry cables across a river. "And we'll stop and look at it and admire it."

Malcolm's mother Anne was badly injured in the collapse of the Canterbury TV building, and Sutton has made many visits to Christchurch Hospital to see her.

Malcolm: "He came in one day with this big map of where the power was restored in Christchurch and where it wasn't. And he said to mum, `get all the doctors to put pinpricks on where they live, and if they haven't had their power restored I'll give it a go' ..."

IT ALL started, says Sutton, with Lego. "Being a Lego fan as a child made me realise that I really liked being creative and solving problems. Everybody always said I'd be an engineer."

They were right, but at first Sutton, who grew up in Wellington, Gisborne and Hamilton, but enrolled at the University of Canterbury, "hated" engineering school because it was "too regimented" and "not creative enough".

Then, in his final year, he did a mini-thesis on whether New Zealand's economy would benefit from ditching the deal that gave incredibly cheap electricity to the Comalco aluminium smelter in Bluff (rough answer: probably).

That was the lightbulb moment. "I saw I could apply engineering to the much bigger picture of how you make a stronger, healthier society."

Not everyone in the industry liked his work-in-progress. "They said if you want to keep on writing that paper, we'll see that you work in Invercargill for the rest of your life designing substation foundations."

In reality, the paper helped land him a job as an analyst as the electricity sector began its lurching journey towards commercialisation, then he leapt from job to job every couple of years, mainly in Canterbury. For the past seven years he's been the chief executive of a council-owned lines company with assets of near $1 billion, serving 192,000 homes and businesses, and making an annual profit near $50m. Oh, and last year he was paid a little over $700,000.

There seems a contradiction here. Sutton is famously (or notoriously) green, cycles everywhere, only occasionally drives his economical VW Golf, runs up a monthly power bill of just $75 for the house he shares with wife Jo Malcolm and their three young sons. Since 2007 he's been chair of the energy conservation flag-waver EECA. Is this odd, from the fabulously paid boss of an organisation that pipes electricity into homes and fuels so many of our wasteful consumerist desires?

Yeah, it's tricky, says Sutton. "Some days I would love to drive around in a Porsche." Yet he doesn't. "If you're going to chair EECA, it's not credible." His worst ecological sin, perhaps, is that he will fly and see his parents in Auckland "whenever I feel the need arises".

Sutton's mother was a polytechnic tutor in communications studies, his father an Anglican clergyman. It's tempting to try to draw a pop-psychology line between priestly father and the greenie son who's interested in building a stronger, healthier society, and who talks with great earnestness about the "deprivation out there at the moment" in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch.

Yet Sutton cites a stranger role model, from high-school days.

"I had two summers working for an undertaker – moving dead bodies around and putting handles on coffins. That's where I learnt that it's actually OK to be a kind man.

"We don't have role models of men who are kind outside their immediate families, do we?"

Former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore says Sutton is a top bloke with "great values", blessed with "empathy and an ability to lead collaboratively".

"This is an eccentric town," says Moore. "It has a reputation of being conservative but it's not really and Roger reflects the eccentricity of the city rather well."

After all, says Moore, there aren't a lot of chief executives who have a suit at the airport to change into after cycling there to catch a flight. Moore then tells a story about the time Sutton reacted angrily when a car cut him off while he was cycling, only for the woman driving to wind down her window and advise the power company chief executive to get a "real job" so he could afford a car.

Sutton's job is even more real now. In the days just after the quake, he worked silly hours until his doctor ordered him to take a day off. Since then he's seen her weekly, "to make sure I'm keeping well", though he was laid low for one day with a vomiting bug.

"The big job we've got now is making sure we've rebuilt the system enough that everyone can turn on their lights and heaters this winter with confidence. We want it back to normal by May."

He plans to enjoy it. "I get excited about trying to make smart tradeoffs that keep wider society happy – and I like the fact that what we do matters."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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